Judi Dench is remarkable. Even without speaking, she employs every part of her face – mouth, eyes, wrinkles, furrows, lines – to convey meaning. She uses it all in “Philomena.”

The movie, directed by Stephen Frears, is based on the true-life story of Philomena Lee, in 1952 an 18-year-old unwed mother who was sent to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, and forced to sign away her baby’s future. When the boy was 3 she watched helplessly as a wealthy couple she had never met took him away. She could not even say goodbye.

The film is set 50 years later. Philomena, who has never heard from or about her son, decides to track him down. She hires former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by British comedian Steve Coogan) to help find him.

The screenplay is based on Mr. Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” As played by Ms. Dench, Philomena is a sweet, warm-hearted woman with a vibrant faith in the church. The movie turns on her search, which takes her and Mr. Sixsmith to America and to some surprising revelations about her son’s life. But what makes the movie work is the subtle chemistry – the bantering humor and sharp differences – between Ms. Dench and Mr. Coogan, who is something of a revelation.

The comedian, well-known in England for his long-running television show “Alan Partridge” (a British Stephen Colbert), turns in a very fine performance as the cynical and acerbic journalist who is not afraid to march into the nun’s quarters at Roscrea Abbey and angrily confront one of the sisters while Philomena hangs back.
They are an odd couple in other respects, too. He is sophisticated, jaundiced and self-righteous, with a frequent scowl that threatens to break into a pout. She is a simple, likable and maternal figure with a loving demeanor and a knack for doing the right thing.

Mr. Coogan optioned Mr. Sixsmith’s book and then co-wrote the screenplay. As with a lot of “based-on-a-true-story” movies, much of the movie is fictional. Ms. Lee never came to America, and the depiction of the abbey is decidedly harsh, so much so that a New York Post reviewer trashed the movie as “another hateful attack on Catholics.” In response the real-life Philomena Lee, now 80, wrote a moving letter proclaiming her continuing faith in the church.

She even forgave the moviemakers their transgressions. “They really make me look like a silly billy, don’t you think?” she told a reporter. But, she said, she understood the need to inject some fictional levity into the film, because “otherwise, it is a very sad story.”

Indeed it is, and a very fine one.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...